Coming up a Wie bit short
With Phil Mickelson putting to rest any doubt as to who would be this year's BellSouth Classic champion by, oh, Friday afternoon, the weekend's golf stage was left wide open for the women of the LPGA.
Chances are most golf fans eschewed Lefty's march through Georgia in favor of the Kraft Nabisco Championship -- and surely didn't come away disappointed. The year's first major yielded big-time drama and truly fantastic golf from some of the world's biggest names.
From Karrie Webb's brilliant finish to Lorena Ochoa's rigid perseverance to Natalie Gulbis' overwhelming insistence that she isn't Anna Kournikova in golf spikes, the tournament provided plenty of golden memories. Yet it's Michelle Wie's failure to come through in the clutch that may be remembered more than anything else.
The Weekly 18 investigates how and why Wie lost in Rancho Mirage.
Major League Baseball's steroid investigation? George Mason's historic run to the Final Four? More in-fighting among NASCAR drivers?
Hefty stories all, but none compared to What Could Have Been. The story of all major sports/news stories could have been happening this week, incorporating gender tensions, Martha Burk, Hootie Johnson, the debate over exclusionary policies of a private club and maybe even a little golf, too.
Instead, we have only one person to blame (or credit) for the lack of such palpable media frenzy at this week's Masters Tournament: Clay Ogden. By defeating Wie in the quarterfinals of last year's U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship, the 5-foot-8, 133-pound BYU junior ended her very real run at becoming the first woman to compete in a men's major championship.
With a little revisionist history, we could have seen Wie beat Ogden and two more opponents to likely gain entry into this year's Masters field (tournament officials traditionally invite the PubLinks champ). Of course, in a perfect media storm, she would have won the Kraft Nabisco on Sunday, stomping through the gates of Augusta National on the heels of her first professional victory -- in an LPGA major, no less.
Nice thoughts, but instead we're left with a Wie-less Masters and questions about the 16-year-old's resolve after another major opportunity slipped through her hands.
Once again, Wie will be remembered more for what she didn't accomplish than for what she did. She'll be roundly criticized for not making enough birdies on the par-5s this week. For making three bogeys on Sunday. For chipping, rather than putting, her third shot from the fringe on the final hole and for failing to make birdie there.
And more than anything else, she'll be reprobated for losing the Kraft Nabisco Championship.
Not for "not winning," mind you, but for "losing." Never mind the fact that both Webb and Ochoa, each of whom bested Wie by one stroke to reach a playoff, both eagled the final hole; this tournament will be known as the one that got away. Again.
Sure, it's not fair to place such blame -- and expectations -- on any high school junior, no matter her obvious talent level. But Wie's most recent deficiency will only fuel the harsh attacks on her game and her inability to win against the best pros in the world.
Wie has proven she can compete with the best, with top-10 finishes in five of nine career major championship starts. Now she'll need to prove once again that such detractors aren't cause for worry, that the victories will happen sooner rather than later and will come in bunches.
"I'm happy with the way I played in my first major as a professional," Wie said. "I wish I would have played a little better, like, the last nine holes, but I'm still happy with the way I finished."
Unfortunately for Wie, not everyone will share in her happiness.
Ladies and gentlemen, we already have a nomination for Shot of the Year. Though it's only April 2, there's little chance any shot this season will be as clutch as Webb's holed-out eagle approach shot into the final green on the 72nd hole of the Kraft Nabisco. Webb used a wedge to knock her third shot from 116 yards into the hole on the par-5. What made it even more worthy was Ochoa's eagle on the same hole just two groups later; had Webb's ball not found the bottom of the cup, Ochoa would have earned the victory with no playoff needed.
Gulbis has her own reality TV show, posed for a swimsuit calendar, employs Butch Harmon as a swing coach and earned more than $1 million on the LPGA Tour last year. Sounds pretty good, huh? It is, but there's one other fact that can't make her too happy: 113 career starts, zero victories. Gulbis looked out of the race for the Kraft Nabisco title for much of Sunday, but birdied three of the final six holes to get into serious contention. In the end, however, it was a fate similar to that of Wie -- a par on the final hole -- that left her one shot out of the playoff. Don't fret for Gulbis, however; she'll win on tour -- and soon.
Astute observers of the Women's World Ranking, which debuted this year, might have noticed Wie's absence from the list entering the Kraft Nabisco. After debuting at No. 3, Wie ascended to second in the world before falling from the ranking altogether prior to the year's first major. The reason? Wie simply hadn't played the minimum number of tournaments during the past 12 months. She'll once again make her way onto the list this coming week, but will be removed in May when she again falls below the minimum.
As surprising as it was to see Wie ranked No. 2 in her most recent foray onto the Women's World Ranking, it's perhaps more of a shock to notice that Yuri Fudoh placed third -- behind only Annika Sorenstam and Paula Creamer -- entering the Kraft Nabisco. Fudoh is not an LPGA member and hasn't seriously contended at a major championship, yet she has benefited from the -- shall we say -- "interesting" nature of the rankings, which have been often criticized since their inception six weeks ago. At the Kraft Nabisco, Fudoh shot 75-73-69-73 to finish T-15 overall.
The PGA Tour and other governing bodies in the men's side of the sport could learn a little something from the LPGA. Instead of tucking the hole on No. 18 behind the water hazard or just a few feet from some deep rough, the tour set up a somewhat easy pin placement, providing a stage for final-round heroics. Officials couldn't have been disappointed after both Webb and Ochoa made final-hole eagles on Sunday. Of course, Mickelson made eagle on the 72nd hole of the BellSouth, too, though it hardly consisted of similar drama.
On Sunday, Mickelson answered the age-old question of, "How many strokes would you need to be leading by while walking up the 18th fairway in the final round of a golf tournament before conducting a live TV interview to speak about the victory?" The answer, apparently, is 11 strokes, which was the difference between Mickelson and the second-place "contender" as he spoke with NBC's Roger Maltbie while striding toward his eagle putt on the final hole.
How dominant was Mickelson this week? He set the record for most total birdies at the BellSouth ... on the 14th hole of the third round. Mickelson netted 26 birdies in his first 50 holes of the week (10 in the first round, seven in the second round, nine in the third round), breaking Rory Sabbatini's tournament record of 25, which he needed all 72 holes to reach back in 1999.
More Mickelson incredulities from this week: His 13-stroke winning differential was the largest on tour since Tiger Woods won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15. He successfully defended a title for the third time in his career (1995/1996 Nortel Open, 2000/2001 Buick Invitational). And he finished in the top-10 for the week in driving distance (fifth), driving accuracy (T-8), greens in regulation (first), putting average (third) and putts per round (T-6). Wow.
Mickelson and Vijay Singh have had their share of differences over the years -- see: Spikegate (when Singh complained that Mickelson's spikes were chewing up Augusta National's greens) and Drivergate (when Singh asked to have Mickelson's driver tested earlier this season) -- but now they have something in common. With the BellSouth victory, Mickelson is now tied with Singh for 20th place all-time on the PGA Tour win list. They each have 28 career titles.
A resident of Duluth, Ga., and three-time All-American at Georgia Tech, Stewart Cink considers the BellSouth Classic his hometown event. In recent years, he's played like he owns the place, doing everything but winning at TPC-Sugarloaf. In 10 previous BellSouth starts, Cink has made the cut eight times, with a runner-up finish in 1999 and five other top-10s. This week, however, Cink was highly ordinary, shooting 72-69-70-71 to finish T-24. It's been a disappointing march toward mediocrity for Cink, who was ranked 71st on the money list entering the week with only one top-10 in seven events. A four-time PGA Tour winner, he rose to 10th on the World Ranking following his victory at the 2004 WGC-NEC Invitational -- his second win that season -- but since then Cink has, uh, sunk to 39th.
Chances are you don't know much about Mark Wilson. But the 31-year-old Wisconsin native is worth taking notice of after a strong start to his 2006 season. After missing the cut in his first event, Wilson has finished 34th or better in each of his last five starts, including a T-19 at the BellSouth. After ranking 133rd on last year's money list, Wilson only owns partial PGA Tour status this year, but he'll receive entry into more tournaments as the season wears on. If he continues his current pace, he'll lock up a card for '07.
With no PGA Tour victories since 2002, Charles Howell III is the first to admit he has yet to reach his full potential as a professional. He recently made some behind-the-scenes changes, leaving coach David Leadbetter -- with whom he had been working for over a decade -- in favor of Brian Mogg, and pairing up with sports psychologist Gio Valiante. "I have thrown out everything, including the kitchen sink," Howell said from the Tavistock Cup. "It's kind of fun starting over."
Ever wonder what it would be like having funnyman David Feherty as the starter at your local club? The folks at the Tavistock Cup got a taste of that when he made first tee announcements earlier this week. Among our favorites was this gem, when Feherty introduced a new partner for the game's top-ranked player: "Next up on the tee, starting the rumor that Tiger Woods' marriage to Mark O'Meara is now over, John Cook." The introduction elicited a big smile from Woods, standing just a few feet away.
Ryder Cup enthusiasts have already studied up on Henrik Stenson, the long-hitting Swede who's a virtual lock to make the European squad. It might be time to hit the books again. With his victory at this week's Algarve Open (where he successfully defended his title), Paul Broadhurst is making a strong run to earn his second career berth on the team. The 40-year-old Englishman went undefeated for the losing side in the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island, teaming with current captain Ian Woosnam for a four-ball victory and beating Mark O'Meara in Sunday's singles match. A crafty veteran who's been there, done that, Broadhurst would be neither intimidating nor imposing to his U.S. counterparts, but could be a nice steady influence on his fellow Europeans.
Four years ago, Gerald Henderson Jr. was a member of the AJGA, competing in two junior golf events during the 2002 season (he finished T-7 at the Callaway Golf Junior All-Star Classic and T-15 at the Fieldstone Junior Classic). After that, Henderson never played another AJGA tournament, presumably choosing to enhance his basketball skills instead. Good move. This week, Henderson -- whose father played for the Celtics and seven other NBA teams -- scored 16 points in the McDonald's All-American Game one night after winning the slam dunk contest. Henderson will attend Duke in the fall.
"He's a steam train right now, and we're just trying to hop on board, I guess."
-- Zach Johnson on Mickelson after Saturday's third round.
"It would have been nice if he prepared for Augusta at Augusta rather than here."
-- Johnson, on Mickelson, later in the same Saturday interview.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com